TALLADEGA — Attendance at the fall NASCAR Cup race at the biggest and fastest track on the circuit this year was much higher usual. According to track officials, 192,000 attended what will be the last race at Talladega for the sport’s biggest star, Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Even with this event’s high numbers, NASCAR is not as relevant to the Alabama scene as what it once was. If you drove around any small town in Alabama in the 1990s, you were bound to encounter at least one pickup truck with one of these decals: a Confederate flag, something noting your allegiance to the University of Alabama or a sticker with the car number of a NASCAR driver (like a #3, but there were others).
The Redneck Trinity of that day was Hank Williams Jr., Paul “Bear” Bryant and Dale Earnhardt.
Twenty years later, it’s still the University of Alabama with Nick Saban as the standard-bearer, but the other elements have changed. The display of the Confederate flag is politically incorrect and therefore taboo.
Completely lost is NASCAR. You don’t see those stickers with Calvin urinating on a Chevy or Ford logo anymore. All that has completely vanished.
Alabama no longer has a love affair with NASCAR.
The state had a long love affair with motorsports. At one time Alabama had a deep bench of auto racing stars. Bobby Allison, Donnie Allison, Davey Allison, Neil Bonnett, Red Farmer and Hut Strickland were all members of the Alabama Gang, a group of drivers that functioned as a team long before the advent of teams in modern big-time stock car racing.
Tragedies took the lives of Bonnett and Allison. The other members of the Alabama Gang went into retirement or semi-retirement, and the local connection to the sport is no more. A few other Alabamians have tried to make inroads in the big leagues of NASCAR, such as Mobile’s Rick Crawford and Cale Gale, but haven’t had success at its highest level.
Without a hometown favorite, there is even less of a reason for many to keep with NASCAR.
In the 2000s, motorsports was going to be the big thing that resurrected the economy of Prichard. Dale Earnhardt Jr. came to Mobile in 2006 and was part of an announcement that 30 investors were backing a $640 million motorsports facility.
Ultimately, the project fell apart. But it was just as well, as the whole booming NASCAR bubble burst.
NASCAR first rose to prominence as the NFL was taking a hit for a strike-shortened season in 1987. Whenever professional sports leagues go on strike, the idea of millionaires fighting millionaires causes these pro sports to lose their luster and those people seek out something else to watch instead.
It just so happened the sport of NASCAR with the cars going around circles in quaint, faraway places like Rockingham, North Carolina, and Martinsville, Virginia, was a suitable replacement. Darrell Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt, Richard Petty and Rusty Wallace became household names in the South.
NASCAR experienced a boom cycle that went on for 20 years. New tracks were built. Sponsorships went from local car dealerships, auto parts manufacturers, beer labels and tobacco brands to multinational corporations such as DuPont, Coca-Cola, Sprint and Microsoft.
In the late 1990s, Donald Trump even flirted with the idea of building a NASCAR track in the New York City market. It didn’t happen. Instead, new venues were built in the country’s other major markets — Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, Kansas City, Dallas, Phoenix and Las Vegas. The field of drivers also became less regional and more geographically diverse. Instead of Kannapolis, North Carolina, and Hueytown, Alabama, places such as Vallejo, California, and Camas, Washington, populated the list of hometowns in the starting lineup on Sundays at the tracks.
NASCAR executives sought to become a national brand and they succeeded. However, in doing so, they killed off the appeal. Rinky-dink half-mile cereal bowl tracks with ragged pavement and creaky grandstands in places such as North Wilkesboro, North Carolina, were replaced with wide tracks with banked, sweeping corners and luxury boxes in suburban places such as Fontana, California.
Even the cars have changed. The ship sailed on actual stock cars off the showroom floor competing in NASCAR races a long, long time ago. Over time, in order to make the sport “more competitive,” the cars became identical. Everything down to a millimeter is the same on the body of the car, regardless of which of the Chevrolet, Ford or Toyota manufacturer’s stickers are brandished on the vehicle.
Has the corporatization of NASCAR — with its younger wunderkind drivers driving in souped-up, over-engineered machines on generic cookie-cutter tracks — killed off the enthusiasm of NASCAR? Probably.
Consider politics and how it was once politically relevant. In 1984, in one of the most iconic moments, President Ronald Reagan, who was running for re-election against Walter Mondale, came to the Firecracker 400 event in Daytona Beach to see Richard Petty win his 200th race. In 2004, President George W. Bush courted voters at the Daytona 500 shortly before winning his re-election bid against John Kerry.
Granted, Bush was the last GOP presidential candidate running for re-election, but NASCAR hasn’t been part of the equation for presidential politics since then.
It hasn’t been part of local politics, either.
Roy Moore, Luther Moore and Doug Jones have all made appearances at an Alabama or Auburn football game during this United States Senate special election. That’s a reasonable thing to do during a campaign — go to an event with lots of people and make a pitch to some undecided or unaware voters about your candidacy.
Completely missing from the race at Talladega were the Moore and Jones campaigns. Twenty years ago, that wouldn’t have been the case. A Republican and a Democrat candidate for stateside office would have been fighting over who would get to give the command, “Gentlemen start your engines.”